Rule by decree is a style of governance allowing quick, unchallenged promulgation of law by a single person or group, and is used primarily by dictators, absolute monarchs and military leaders.
The expression is also sometimes used when describing actions of democratic governments that are perceived to unduly bypass parliamentarian or popular scrutiny.
Rule by decree allows the ruler to arbitrarily edit law, without legislative approval.
When a state of emergency, such as martial law, is in place, rule by decree is common. While rule by decree is easily susceptible to the whims and corruption of the person in power, it is also highly efficient: a law can take weeks or months to pass in a legislature, but can be edited with ease by a leader ruling by decree. This is what makes it valuable in emergency situations. Thus, it is allowed by many constitutions, including the French, Argentine, Indian and Hungarian constitutions.
Lex Titia and Second Triumvirate
One of the first examples of rule by decree was in the ancient Roman Republic when, after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, his successor, Gaius Octavian (Augustus), general Mark Antony and succeeding pontifex maximus Aemilius Lepidus seized power in the Second Triumvirate, officially recognized by the senate by the Lex Titia decree. The resolution, which gave the three 'triumvirs' authoritarian powers for five years, was enacted and reinstated consecutive in 38 BC. It finally collapsed in 33/32 BC, after the downfall of Lepidus, leading to the Final Roman Republican Civil War and the total collapse of republican government.
Reichstag Fire Decree of 28 February 1933
The most prominent example in history is the Reichstag Fire Decree in Germany, passed after the Reichstag building caught fire in 1933. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler convinced President Paul von Hindenburg to invoke Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution and issue a decree suspending basic civil rights indefinitely. As a result of this decree, German authorities were able to constitutionally suppress or imprison their opposition, which in turn paved the way for the one-party rule of the Nazi Party. The ensuing state of exception, which suspended the Constitution without formally repealing it, lasted until the end of the Third Reich in 1945.
Decrees in non-dictatorial regimes
Some democratic leaders, such as the presidents of Mexico, France and Argentina may rule by decree in national emergencies, subject to constitutional and other legal limitations. In the case of France this power has been used only once, by Charles de Gaulle in 1961 during the Algerian War.
Other modern political concepts, such as the French decrees, Orders in Council in the British Commonwealth, and executive orders in the United States are partially based on this notion of decrees, although they are far more limited in scope and generally subject to judicial review.
During the Indian Emergency from 1975 to 1977, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had laws passed that allowed her to rule by decree.
Ireland's Emergency Powers Act allows the government to rule by decrees called Emergency Powers Orders in any aspect of national life, if the parliament invokes the emergency clause in Article 28(3) of the Constitution. The Act however allows the Dáil Éireann to void specific EPOs in a free vote or end the state of emergency at any time.
From 23 September (given actual effect from 4 October after the armed disbanding of the Supreme Soviet) to 12 December 1993, rule by decree (ukase) was imposed in Russia by President Boris Yeltsin, during transition from the Russian Constitution of 1978 (which was modelled after the obsolete Soviet Constitution of 1977) to the current 1993 Constitution.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was granted executive power by the National Assembly to rule by decree multiple times throughout his tenure, passing hundreds of laws. Chávez ruled Venezuela by decree in 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012. Between 2004 and 2006 alone, Chávez declared 18 "emergencies" to rule by decree.
Chávez's successor, Nicolás Maduro, has also ruled by decree multiple times since he was elected in April 2013. President Maduro has ruled Venezuela by decree for the majority of the period from 19 November 2013 through 2018.
Giorgio Agamben's critique of the use of decrees-law
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has claimed that there has been an explosion in the use of various types of decrees (decree-law, presidential decrees, executive orders, etc.) since World War I. According to him, this is the sign of a "generalization of the state of exception".